Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Not Everything in the Waste Bin is Garbage

Found a rat in the outdoor trash bin this morning. At first I didn’t know it was a rat, for its body was half hidden within a Chitato bag, just one end protruding -- whether head or ass I could not on first inspection say. Clearly it was not a comely creature. I thought it was maybe a frog or a lizard or part of a snake or a very large cockroach or merely a banana peel (my eyesight is not good), but a brief conference with my wife concluded the thing to be a rat. Or not a rat, actually, but a similar creature known in these parts as a cucurut.

Having been thus identified -- his cover blown -- the cucurut and his Chitato bag began to move, and in this a second cucurut was disturbed and began to move as well, emerging from the deeper parts of the bin in what seemed a fairly lousy mood, such that it felt compelled to pounce upon the first cucurut from the rear. A brief scuffle ensued. I retreated a few steps whilst my wife retired to the living room.

“Should I let them out?” I called back to her.

“Just leave them.”

“Do you think they would bite me?”

“Just leave them.”

“But that seems so . . . hard-hearted.”

No answer.

So I’m standing there between porch and bin wondering how the critters got into the can to begin with. It’s a mystery not unlike another Bali mystery I have written of in the past -- to whit, how small frogs can end up on my front porch when the steps are far too high for them to jump. That, and now this thing with the cucurut, both seem to defy reason. They defy natural science. They defy physics and every other science.

Clearly the mouth of the garbage bin is far too distant from the ground to be attained by a leap from these diminutive critters, and the proof of the same, if it even needing proving, is readily apparent in the failure of their ongoing efforts to jump out of the bin from within -- which is something they are rather vigorously attempting to do just now. They leap, accomplish maybe half a foot in height, and then fall back to the padded floor of their prison, emitting little shrieks of irritation. In this last I note that these Balinese cucuruts are much louder than the common western rat, and that there seems something almost human in the tone of their frustration. Aduh!

So their predicament was not accomplished by a leap. No way.

What then? Tiny ladders they had constructed in advance? Roman-like siege towers? Ah, but where is the evidence of these ladders and towers? Ropes made of vine, grappling hooks, stacked doll furniture, miniature helicopters? Again, no such machinery appears. The bin is about half a foot distant from a stone wall, itself about seven feet in height, from which they may have dropped like paratroopers, I suppose -- but again, how might they have reached the top of the wall to begin with, and how pull off this seven foot plunge without serious injury, barring the use of tiny parachutes? No, a descent from above seems no more likely than ascension from below.

How then? I simply do not know. Perhaps they were deposited by human hand. Perhaps someone else had them at first in his own bin, did not want them, and so transferred them to ours (but that leaves, at the very least, the question of how they first got into his bin, doesn’t it?) It may be, as is the apparent case with the frogs, that they fell from the sky. It may even be some form of black magic.

In any case, the growing fever of these two little guys’ attempts to escape the pickle they’ve got themselves into -- their rattling and shrieking, thumping and scratching -- eventually chases away my preoccupation with the mere fact of their presence, and I begin to wonder again how I might free them, or whether indeed I should free them. It is not such a simple question. There are moral considerations involved. And there are personal safety issues as well. Do cucuruts deserve freedom? Do they even know what freedom is? And if granted their freedom, how will they use it in the future? Have they learned anything from this present experience? Can I myself, morally, ‘just leave them,’ as my wife had advised, knowing then that they must surely perish (unless somehow removed by the same magic that got them there)?

I approach nearby, peer into their personal pit of hell -- that same which must have seemed heaven in the beginning, now become a heartless grave -- and it stirs something in me, tugs a heart string, touches a nerve of commiseration .

Ah, there but for the grace of God go I.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

You Get What You Pay For

My wife believes in the power of money. It is a matter for her of the surest conviction and faith that any problem can be solved, any goal attained, through the expenditure of appropriate (or even inappropriate) funds. I will admit that this may in some cases be true, given a limited scope of predicament and cure. Say for instance that you’ve been arrested and jailed on a misdemeanour charge and bail has been set at five hundred dollars. Or say that you’ve neglected to pay your house mortgage for the last three months and the man from the bank is coming at 5 p.m. on Friday. Or say that you’ve been stopped by the Bali police and you don’t have a license or a vehicle registration or a helmet. In each case money is the answer, at least in the immediate sense. You pay and you’re on your way.

But when it comes to weight loss, I’m not so sure about the efficacy of the dollar to intervene in an equally successful measure. Call me callow, call me na├»ve, call me a cheapskate, but it seems to me that weight loss is a matter of personal commitment, grim determination, unwavering resolution, and not a little pain. It also helps to eat less. Is it too simple to say that a program of exercise and diet is the obvious solution in the desire to lose weight?

Not at all, my wife says. That’s why she needs that treadmill from Hypermart. That’s why she needs the HerbaLife Diet regimen. Exercise is easy with a treadmill. And it’s not as boring as these common, old-school type exercises, like sit-ups and crunches and jumping jacks. You can watch the TV while you exercise and hardly be aware of the exertion. The weight simply melts away while the CSI team solves another murder or Joan Rivers murders another Hollywood luminary. And the expense of that special, scientifically researched diet, medically approved by Good Housekeeping magazine, supplies its own incentive in the price alone. After all, who is going to pay that much money and NOT lose weight? It’s a matter of pride. It’s a matter of accountability. It’s a matter of responsible economics.

In short then, weight loss is firstly a matter of personal finances, not personal effort. The physical wherewithal of success has first to be put in place. My daughter once stated the case in a similar manner. She wanted a car but did not have a job, and she could not get a job because she did not have a car. One’s ducks must be in a proper row, you see; a foundational groundwork must be in place.

There are so many things in the world that come with a caveat, or so I have learned from marriage and children. As an example, my wife bought a bike a few weeks ago from our neighbour, for the same weight shedding purpose, and yet the bike has stood untouched in the driveway ever since. I wondered about this, and so I asked why. Having but half a brain, I had failed, as usual, to see the obvious. She could not possibly use that bike, I was told, before purchasing proper gloves, lest her hands end up calloused and thick as sweet potatoes. Note that I say “proper gloves” -- not mittens of the sort you see motorcyclists wearing here in Bali, but leather gloves with holes for the fingertips and a Velcro strap at the wrist.

I should say before going any further that my wife is not fat. She’s not really even overweight. She’s merely 35, and therefore fat in her imagination, overfed by the female fear of aging, suffering from the vague inkling that she cannot remain 25 forever, yet encouraged in the belief that there are ways around this dilemma -- exercise, diet, Botox, plastic surgery, tummy tucks, pills, and money. Mostly money.

To make my own point then, in my customary curmudgeonly, parsimonious way, I decided to go on weight loss program of my own. There would be no great expense, and in fact I would save money simply by eating less. If our son fades away in the bargain for lack potable sustenance, well it’s all for a good cause. For exercise my plan is to use my own feet, legs and arms -- this amazing machine I was born with, and quite without cost.

Breakfast is one egg, one chicken bone, and a piece of plain toast, no margarine. The stuff they call margarine here is really only yellow car wax anyway. Lunch is potato chips and five cups of coffee, a combination that causes nausea till well after dinner, thus quelling any desire to imbibe the same. If I hunger by night, I allow high energy snacks such as Snickers bars, cookies, Ritz Crackers and such-like.

Where exercise is concerned I decided to adhere to the good old fashioned sit-up. No better way to tone and flatten the stomach right? But I find straightaway that something is wrong. This exercise was not nearly so difficult thirty years ago. What happened? Herculean efforts result in no more than three successful elevations from the floor, and then I’m on my back for five minutes of heavy breathing. I try again and my stomach muscles cry for mercy.

What does seem readily apparent after two days and two nights of this personalized program is that this is not working out well at all. I’m hungry, I’m in pain, and I’ve gained two pounds. Better to just surrender to the wisdom of my wife and go with that treadmill after all. If nothing else, it will make for a good towel rack.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


America has been called ‘the melting pot of the world,’ at least in olden time, for its invitation to people all over the globe to immigrate to its happy shores, but for me it can never hold a candle to the variety and variance of cultures and tongues one finds in the sunny environs of Bali. The trouble with America is that people soon become Americans, shedding the uniqueness of their heritage for a new skin, a gray flannel suit of conformity, such that the quirks and traits that made them foreign people soon no longer attain. I knew, for instance, many Indonesians in America, and yet knew not a single one until I came to Bali -- for they had all become Americans, you see? And no one loves America so well as expatriated Indonesians -- its anaemic culture, its disposition toward greed, its worship of money, its love of ‘things’ -- shoes, clothing, jewellery, cars. Charity, community, character -- all suffer under the stress of a rich yet reductive national ethos.

But enough of America bashing for the moment. What I want to say is that here in Bali the Brit stays British, the Aussie Australian, the Frenchman French and so on the wide world of immigrants over -- for in this far flung archipelago a nonnegotiable divide is encountered. The bule can hardly become an Indonesian, and so he must stay as he is, dragging along his cultural and linguistic peculiarities just as surely as his own skin. We don‘t put on airs, or join the PTA, or sit in the seats of government, or reside over Hindu processions. No, we remain perfectly foreign. We are neither consumed nor altered nor absorbed. Our essential frame of reference remains with the culture and character of our countries of origin, and we continue for the most part to speak in our native tongues and to employ our native idioms of language.

Which brings me to this concept of “ish” as employed by the peoples of some western countries to denote some peculiarly uncertain increment of time. It is a strange notion to the American, for we are precise sorts of people. For the American, eleven o’clock means 11 o’clock. Noon means noon. There is no “ish” about it. And yet for the Australian, for instance, and the Englishman and the Frenchman and the Italian, time is not so easily pinned down. It’s fluid, somewhat questionable, somewhat if-ish.

“Coffee at 9-ish,” my English friend says. What does this mean? Something like 9? Two or three minutes before or past nine? At some point during which the general atmosphere of the day seems to resemble 9?

I certainly don’t know, and so I arrive for coffee at 9. And of course my friend is not there. Nor is he there at 2 minutes after 9, or 5, or 10, or 20. I conclude therefore that the term 9-ish has nothing in essential to do with the actual fact of 9 o’clock. I note also that by 20 minutes past the hour I have already finished my cappuccino. Why were we meeting? For coffee, right?

It may or may not be marginally interesting at this point to note that the word “Ish” was one of the first words used to denote a member of the human race, and can be found, curiously enough, in various widely separated parts of the world -- from the Middle East to South America. Adam, in the Hebrew, was called Ish, and in his first words in the Torah he calls the newly created woman Isha. Clearly then, the term has been a longstanding one, and why it never caught on in America, I cannot say. Other well known ishes would include Ishrael, Ishlam, Chrishtianity, Ishmail, Ishstanbul, and Ish-Kabibble. As well as fishes, of course.

Shall we conclude therefore, given the modern use of the term “ish,” that there was something inexact, unreliable, unpredictable about man and the world and the cosmos from the outset? Or is it just the American expectation of precision that is fishy?

In any case, my friend shows up at 9:30 -- ish having meant, in this case, for this day, 30 minutes past the hour. Why did he not say 9:30 to begin with? Why say 9 if you mean 9:30? Ah, but there is that all important, intangible “ish” attached.

“Well hey, Mike-ish. Run into some trouble along the way?“

“No trouble. Why?“

“You’re a bit tardy-ish, that’s all.“

“Not at all. I said 9-ish, did I not?”

“But as you can see, my cappuccino is rather gone-ish.”

“Ah well, have another. It’s still early-ish, ish-n’t it?”

It is agreed then. Next time around I will plan to arrive for coffee late-ish.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Much Ado About Gaga

First off, and at the risk of appearing hopelessly out of it, I will admit that up until the recent brouhaha over Lady Gaga’s performance (or non-performance) in Jakarta, I didn’t even know who the woman was. I had perhaps some vague idea that she was a singer, or a dancer, or Paris Hilton’s sister, or Lady Godiva’s sister, or maybe a recalcitrant member of the English royal family, but other than that it was just a name.

Now, thanks to the FPI and the Jakarta police, I and perhaps thousands, perhaps millions of other hopelessly out of touch people young and old have become aware of Lady Gaga to an extent greater than we would otherwise have purposed or desired -- her music, her poetry, her style, her lipstick, along with the threat she has posed to decent society and impressionable young-un’s all over the world. A destroyer of morals, the FPI says. A tool of Satan, a messenger of decadence from the West, bringing blasphemous lyrics, shameless bodily gyrations (similar to those seen in the locally grown Dangdut) to corrupt the innocent mind of youth, tear at the very seams of social order, wile the unwary to the pit of hell. Yes, lyrics such as these:

Oh, caught in a bad romance
Oh, caught in a bad romance
Ra, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

and these:

P-p-p poker face, p-p-p poker face
Mum mum mum mah
P-p-p poker face, p-p-p poker face
Mum mum mum mah

Horrors! Sacrelige! Wickedness! Mum mum mum mah!

Really? It looks more like nonsense to me.

Don’t get me wrong. Nonsense has its own place. Consider, for instance, the John Lennon lyrics for I am the Walrus:

Semolina Pilchard
climbing up the Eiffel tower
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Man, you should have seen them kicking
Edgar Allan Poe

Or from Come Together:

Here come old flat top
He come groovin' up slowly
He got joo joo eyeballs
He one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker
He just do what he please

But there’s a difference, right? In Lennon’s nonsense there seems yet some kind of peripheral intention lurking just beneath the surface. The language is sharp, infectious, strangely precise in its imprecision, and vaguely dangerous in its invitation to make connections and conclusions (just look at what Charles Manson made of Helter Skelter!).

But what can we say about “Mum, mum, mum, mah?” “P-p-p poker face?” It seems to me that if this woman and her corporate entourage are seeking to destroy anything, it is not the moral decency of youth but the heritage of integrity and ingenuity in the music and lyrics of the true artists that came before her -- The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, et al.

Call me old again, but these were artists and performers worthy of significant response, be it admiration or censure, devotion or disapproval. Here were lyrics that challenged through commentary and criticism, through involvement in the real world and the social issues of the time.

Lady Gaga is not stupid. No one makes millions in this world by being stupid. Rather, I will wager that Lady Gaga knows perfectly well how silly she is, and therefore how silly the FPI has made itself, their nation and their religion by taking her seriously. Moreover, she departs the country firmly in possession of the high ground, having chosen the sober course of withdrawal over the risk of subjecting her fans to the violence promised by the FPI -- giving thanks at the same time for the elevation of her ‘art’ beyond any measure it could have attained on its own merit.

And she is laughing all the way to the bank.